Learning from our past

One of the greatest strengths traditional media companies bring to digital marketing is hidden in plain sight and all-too-often overlooked in our frenzy to develop new online solutions.

Over the past 150 years, newspapers have developed robust systems for making sure that we are delivering what we sell. We have systems to ensure that ads get built and proofed and approved, systems to ensure that, when necessary, ads are paid for before they’re placed, systems to ensure that every ad gets billed, systems to ensure that every ad billed gets placed. When we screw up, we have systems to ensure that credits or credit ads are applied, and we track all of our errors to learn from them.

Ten or 15 years ago, the systems were all paper-based, with tickets and proofs and all of the other forms we needed shuffled through wire baskets as the ads went through the mill and into print. Now the systems are mostly electronic, but lots of newspapers still measure and tally the ads in each day’s paper.

The systems are sometimes cumbersome, and they’re never foolproof, but they’ve been critical to our success. They have been the foundation of customer satisfaction and internal accountability. They are what gave us confidence we would deliver exactly what we sold.

But when we started dabbling in digital advertising, we ignored all of that. We hacked our ad-entry systems to book digital ads, sometimes making it virtually impossible to run a manifest that would tell us what should be running on any given day. We shoehorned digital ad production into our existing workflows, relying on e-mail chains to keep track of their status. We used whatever ad-delivery systems we could cobble together, without much thought to how we would be able to delivery against ads ordered. And if something went wrong, if we over- or under-delivered on impressions, we dealt with it on the fly, tossing a few thousand more impressions onto the order to jam the ad into rotation.

For banner ads, most of us cleaned up our processes after the early Wild West days. They’re not that dissimilar from print ads, after all.

But now, as papers dive into “digital marketing services” by whatever buzzwords they’re called – reputation management, SEO, social media marketing and the like – we’re doing it all over again, forgetting to build the checks and balances that keep us on track.

Keeping it simple, there are three key outcomes you want, whatever you’re selling:

  • An efficient, effective workflow. You need to build systems that ensure you can track work performance and quality. That’s trickier when you’re dealing with what are essentially consulting services than when you’re dealing with relatively tangible ads. You may need to deploy time-tracking systems as well as quality-control systems.
  • Delivery confirmation. You need to be able to replicate the kind of delivery certainty you got from matching up sales manifests against the measured paper. You never want to be in the position of having promised SEO-optimized marketplace listings only to find out the customer has nothing but a name and an address posted.
  • Verifiable adjustments. Until all of us are replaced by robots, we’ll make mistakes. You need a system to approve adjustments, make-goods and corrections and ensure they’re delivered.

Recent readings for a strategic retreat

A group of managers at The Frederick News-Post will be shutting off mobile phones and retreating to a farm outside of town next week to kick off a strategic planning process. Gary Greene will be leading us. To get the mental wheels turning, I Tumblr’d a bunch of recently bookmarked stories on the industry. Here they are: http://geordiewilson.tumblr.com/.

Against the tide

Scores of papers have eliminated their Monday or Saturday editions; a hardy few have gone further and cut themselves back to publishing just three or four days a week. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans is the latest high-profile example of a daily paper downsizing itself to a some-daily paper.

Meanwhile, here in Frederick at The Frederick News-Post, we’re heading in the opposite direction: We brought our Monday edition back from the grave in February.

Are we nuts?

Only time will tell. But five months into this experiment the results are promising. Readers are grateful, and advertisers remain supportive.

Going into the project, we had five main goals:

  • Increase reader satisfaction: The lack of a Monday edition was a huge and continuing source of complaints from our readers. Whatever the media gurus say about the inevitability of a future where dailies aren’t daily, our readers haven’t read the memo. They made it very clear they want their local paper delivered every day. We had seen about a 15 percent decline in subscribers after cutting out Monday in 2009; our hope was to at least stem the decline.
  • Seize the opportunity to rethink the daily newspaper: As it had shrunk over recent years, our newsroom had lost much of its design expertise. We wanted to use the reinvention of a Monday paper as an opportunity to talk about design and improve our overall graphical sensibility. We also thought long and hard about the kinds of information readers need to start their week, and we developed a range of new story forms to present that information.
  • Shore up our business and sports coverage: The lack of a Monday edition is a real liability in the football and NASCAR seasons. We also saw the start of the workweek as an opportunity to burnish our local business report.
  • Change the narrative: The Frederick News-Post had been through almost four years of cutbacks and layoffs, mirroring the national decline, and the perception of the paper in the community and even in the building was that it was struggling. We saw an opportunity to make a bold statement about promise and opportunity, one that would affirm subscribers, advertisers and employees in their continued support.
  • Make money: Suspending Monday’s paper saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars in the short term. But it contributed to an erosion in our subscriber base, it cut the profitability of our third-party delivery business and it made raising home-delivery rates problematic.

I laid before the newsroom the following proposal: Design an entirely new Monday edition, with a business and sports focus and an emphasis on “agenda-setting” news for the week ahead. Make it a tabloid format, as opposed to the full broadsheet format we use the rest of the week, but keep the feel of a daily newspaper, with as much of the daily furniture (comics, editorials, letter, classifieds, advice columns, etc.) as we can. Here’s what emerged:

Along the way, we stumbled onto a new strategy for ad sales, which has emerged as the key to the business success we’ve had. I’d like to say we designed it intentionally, but really it was the result of a cascade of other decisions:

  • First, the tabloid format. We chose a tabloid format to underscore the newness of the paper, to force new thinking on design and information and also, I confess, to trick the eye. It was hard to imagine a Monday ad stack that would justify more than about 20 pages broadsheet, which we thought would underwhelm our readers. But a 40-page or even a 36-page tabloid feels richer.
  • Next, fixed ad sizes and positions. We decided to fix ad sizes and positions to simplify production, to make it easier for readers to navigate this new and unfamiliar paper and to give advertisers certainty over where their ads would show up.
  • Finally, the columns. We wanted a five-column design to give the Monday edition a newsy feel. But this left us with ad sizes that wouldn’t translate to other days of the week.

Given ads that couldn’t readily be extended to or from other days of the week, we made lemonade. We decided to sell Monday-only contracts on specific ad spots for 13, 26 or 52 weeks. This fundamentally changed the sale dynamics. It introduced scarcity and urgency, and it helped us minimize switch advertising.

The upshot so far: We’ve had tremendous success on the first four goals. Reader response has been overwhelmingly positive, even to the radically new format, and even from long-term (older) readers. The paper looks great, the new elements have been well-received and we’ve maintained a strong focus on business and sports. It’s hard to gauge how much the narrative of decline has been changed to one of growth or at least stability, but to the extent that advertiser support is an indicator we appear to have made gains.

On the final and critical goal of making money, it’s still too early to say, although most indications are that bringing back Monday has helped. Ad sales have far exceeded expectations, and we’ve held on to the early advertisers. In our most recent edition, for example, we have just one house ad in the 20 spots we designed into the paper.

On the other hand, single-copy sales of the Monday paper have been lower than we had hoped and our trend with subscribers has been somewhat mixed. Our stops have been flat, but our starts have been weak. Because we  increased rates shortly after introducing the Monday edition, though, it’s hard to tease out the impact of Monday. On balance, I’d say it has helped us to retain subscribers, but that’s a hunch.

All in all, we’re pleased. Bringing back Monday appears to be helping us financially, readers are happier and it has strengthened our position in the marketplace after several difficult years.

That’s not to say it would make sense for other papers. We had some unusual factors that helped to make it feasible for us. We have a substantial commercial printing business, with two other dailies on the press on Sunday nights, so we already had the press crews here. We also deliver a number of dailies in our market; bringing our Monday back actually helped reduce some complications there (and service complaints). And we had shifted some Monday content to an extra Sunday section, so we already were using about a third of the newsprint we run for Monday.

So it may not work for everyone. If there are takeaways for other papers, they might include the following:

  • If you need to reduce costs, consider a tabloid format. You don’t save on distribution, but you can save newsprint and it forces you to rethink what you’re delivering. Our readers love it.
  • The ad sales model — fixed positions sold on contract — has been surprisingly effective; we’re trying to figure out other ways we can employ it.
  • And the editorial kicker: Don’t underestimate the value of the daily readership habit. Three years after we suspended Monday, it was by far our largest reader complaint and a consistent obstacle in sales.

Some readings:

 

Failure of imagination

So this is what passes for innovation in the newspaper industry? Taking the Times-Picayune, with its passionate daily print readership, from seven days to three is the best idea we’ve got?

Surely we could do better.

Those who style themselves realists point to the fact that newspapers like the Times-Picayune lose money most days of the week they print. The money’s in the fat days like Sunday; Monday’s a loser. Tally it up, and the decision is clear: Cut Monday. And why stop there? Why not cut Tuesday, cut Thursday and cut Saturday? Job done; here’s your new, “more robust” New Orleans Times-Picayune, as the management memo styled it.

What that ruthless logic overlooks, though, is the value of the readership habit. Generations of newspaper readers have grown accustomed to reading their paper every morning or afternoon. That daily habit forms a powerful bond between readers and their paper, and you disrupt it at your peril.

We certainly learned that in Frederick. Three years after cutting out our Monday publication, the lack of a Monday paper was far and away our top reader complaint.

The simple math of the hard realists also overlooks the basic reality that many businesses lose money some times of the day, some days of the week and even many months of the year. Outside of a few key buying periods, especially Christmas, many stores don’t cover operating costs every day of the year, or even every day of the week. Restaurants may scrape by early in the week to make their money as the weekend approaches. Yet these businesses stay open even during lean hours and lean days. After all, a customer who finds a business shuttered on Tuesday may go elsewhere on Friday, too.

The hope in New Orleans is that even if readers go elsewhere for news four days a week, they’ll still come back to the Times-Picayune on the other three. Maybe so. Maybe their readers are more flexible than ours were, or maybe there are fewer alternatives for them to choose from.

But what’s profoundly discouraging is that publishers in New Orleans, Michigan and elsewhere have embraced such radical surgery before attempting other therapies.

Would a tabloid format lower production costs enough to support at least weekday publication? What about differential pricing, for advertisers and for subscribers? Where are the radically re-conceived newspapers that try to meet readers where they are today? Why no experiments with targeted-interest papers, or cafeteria-model papers? Why not a three-day core news product with up-sells for a Business Monday edition, an Entertainment Friday edition, and so on?

Maybe none of these ideas would be enough to save a paper like the Times-Picayune. I only wish someone was trying. Otherwise, if the Internet and the economy don’t kill newspapers, we might just do it ourselves first.

Related readings:

Tools for online journalists

I’ve started a page of useful tools & sites for online journalists. It’s a work in progress, and still a bit of a grab-bag list, but you’re sure to find something interesting there. Over the next few days & weeks I’ll dig deeper into my bookmarks and try to annotate, illustrate and organize it. Suggestions welcome!

Everything old is new again

Remember CueCat?

Somewhere, I’m sure I still have one of those little proprietary bar code scanners that got mailed out to millions of people in the hope that we would all use them to follow bar-coded links in printed products to online resources and offers.

I loved CueCat, partly because it was a bold, even visionary idea, and even more because it was such a blatantly bad business and product plan. It earned a place of honor in my own personal pantheon of spectacular and foreseeable dotcom failures, right up there with my all-time favorite, the iSmell Personal Scent Synthesizer from DigiScents.

(Both of these, I see, made it to a fun list of “The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time” published by PCWorld back in 2006.)

Now the idea behind CueCat is back again. But this time it might just take off.

QR (quick read) codes have their roots in manufacturing, but now they are being used to attempt the same magic CueCat was intended to perform — turn print products (and signs, billboards, displays or anything else) into interactive media.

There are a couple of key differences, though. First, the QR code inventors are apparently not exercising their patent rights, so the technology is effectively open. Even more importantly, the rise of smartphones has replaced the need for a proprietary and cumbersome device to read the codes. Plus, QR codes seem to fit right in with some of the other scan-reading technologies being used on iPhones and Android devices, so it’s not much of a stretch to imagine people taking shots of QR codes, too.

Today, Sean Burke, publisher for Gatehouse Media New England in Fall River and Taunton, Mass., announced that The Herald News will be experimenting with QR codes to provide “hardlinks” back to editorial and advertising resources.

That’ll be interesting to watch. My guess is that use of QR codes for additional news content will be minimal, but if they can get advertisers to send coupons back to readers’ phones they’ll get some traction. It might also be useful for iCal links, map links and other things that tap into smartphone functions.

Want to play along?

You can generate QR codes at bit.ly or goo.gl or lots of other ways you can find with a simple search of “QR code generator.”

At mashable.com, you’ll find some creative examples of QR code use that should get your juices flowing. One place to start is with the story “5 Unique Uses for QR Codes.” A more recent article there called “Why the Best Online Marketing May Be Headed Offline” updates things a bit. And you can scoot over to memeburn for some more ideas in “9 creative uses of QR Codes for your business.”

Re-engaging readers

The stats I’ve seen about online reader engagement are pretty discouraging, as I discussed in “Disengagement.”

Leaving aside, for now, the challenges related to the medium itself, which are difficult to control, I think there are some basic approaches and principles that news sites can keep in mind to engage their readers more deeply.

Beyond the basic requirement that you offer compelling and distinctive information and services, I think it’s useful to think about three important characteristics of what you could think of as web-positive publishing. I call them the Three I’s: immediacy, interactivity and interneticity.

Immediacy is about recognizing the voracious desire among our readers for good old-fashioned news, with the emphasis on new. Having spent many years poring over news site traffic logs, I can guarantee that the big preview of coming legislative battles and priorities, however important and well-written, will drop like a stone to the bottom of the most-read list, while the short newsy item about the fire that consumed a meth lab will rise to the top. Also: Quirky news wins, short wins, timeliness and urgency win, images help and feature stories can be either big hits or traffic flops and there’s no way of knowing beforehand. And, yes, controversy loves a crowd.

That’s not to say that a steady diet of meth lab fires and short quirky blurbs is the solution for every news site. (That’s what local TV news is for.) And that’s not to say that you shouldn’t do the big takeout on the upcoming legislative session, or the heart-warming profile or what have you. All of those may be essential to your mission and equally essential to maintaining your brand and personality, both in print and online.

But the content strategy for news sites has to begin with the understanding that online readers are looking for information fixes. You need to meet that need with a steady flow of timely, newsy, relevant information.

Pew offers some insight into news readership habits. According to Pew, online news junkies typically patronize a slowly evolving core list of trusted sites that they visit frequently. For most internet users, the core list includes just a handful of sites. Only 11 percent regularly visit more than five news sites on a typical day. Critically, news readers are not terribly attached to the sites they visit — about two thirds do not have a favorite site.

One key aspect of online news readership appears to be missing from the Pew study, though — the frequency of vsits from regular users. As far as I can tell, the Pew study only went as far as measuring daily use. My belief — and it is a key assumption — is that a news site’s best users will come to it habitually, perhaps several times over the course of a day.

Or at least they will if the site rewards repeat visits. A site that doesn’t change quickly kills that impulse to check in. A site that has a sense of urgency and recency rewards repeat visits — and stays on that reader’s short list of core news sources.

So how do you engineer immediacy? It doesn’t have to be a huge effort. News blogs, alerts (even automated alerts) on stories that are hot, most-read and most-commented lists, “coming tomorrow” promos, integrated wire tickers, quick mid-day updates and quick page remakes to emphasize popular stories all help. You can look beyond the main news stream, too, to things like featured reader comments, Twitter feeds, reader queries, rotating classified displays, featured reader business reviews, reader-submitted content and anything else that’s relevant and timely.

Interactivity is the second pillar of engaging readers, and it should include both content interactivity and institutional interactvity. Make it possible for readers to grab hold of your offerings and make them in some sense their own, through comments, social media integration, personal clipboards, ratings and so on. And embrace the notion of dialog with your readers, making it easy for them to submit tips or photos or news, offering chats or other interactive events, giving them opportunities to shape presentation, coverage and priorities.

(Update: Robert Niles has written a post at OJR: The Online Journalism Review on baby-stepping your way toward interactivity.)

The third “I,” interneticity, is my own horrible neologism, for which I apologize to anyone of linguistic sensibility. By interneticity, I mean taking advantage of the possibilities of the medium for smart, useful and engaging information presentation. Some of the best examples of what I mean by interneticity can be found at the New York Times, where their team of data-smart designers regularly produce stunning information graphics. Fortunately for the rest of use, there are lots of tools out there for integrating maps, timelines, charts that can be manipulated by readers, interactive Wordles, tag clouds, slide shows, etc.

There’s no one path to re-engaging readers online. But keeping immediacy, interactivity and interneticity as touchstones for news site content strategies will reward and promote more frequent, deeper site use.

On muddling through

There’s nothing more seductive than the next big thing. Especially the next big sexy web thing, the clever idea like Twitter or failblog or Groupon that takes almost nothing to launch, turns 20-somethings into multi-millionaires and seems so retrospectively obvious that anyone could have done it.

News companies, in particular, seem eternally desperate for the next big thing. As they see their traditional business models founder, they bound, ever hopefully, after verticals and micro sites and user-generated content and multimedia content and paywalls and hyperlocal and business blogs and whatever else flashes before them.

Having done my own share of bounding after mirages, I’ve come painfully to realize that a great idea and a buck will get you a medium coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, and that’s about it.

That’s not to say that paywalls, or pay curtains, aren’t a good thing. We’ll see. As well with hyperlocal and business blogs and all the rest. But no brilliant idea is going to save us. What just might save us, though, is what I’ve come to think of affectionately as the modest virtue of muddling through.

Which is to say that every brilliant idea is flawed in some unexpected way, and even the best ideas are quickly challenged by changing technology and evolutions in online habits and mores. What distinguishes successful online innovators is not the brilliance of their ideas, but rather how well they muddle through partial successes and even outright failures to arrive, eventually, at something that works for their audience and their organization.

As far as insights go, mine is not terribly original. After all, Edison said a century ago that success is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. We’re not talking relativity here.

But it’s something of a relief to realize that brilliance is over-rated. You don’t have to wait for some earth-changing inspiration to get cracking.

You do, however, still have to put in that other 99 percent.

Among media companies I consider to be successful innovators, there are some common features and lessons that can be drawn.

First and foremost, I think, is to expect and plan for failure, at least implicitly. I’ve been told the mantra of one Harvard B School professor is, “Fail early and fail cheap.” That deceptively simple prescription suggests that you won’t blow your whole budget on one Hail Mary project, it suggests that you will start by thinking carefully about what success would look like so you can change course rapidly, if necessary, and it suggests that you will understand the keys to success so you can learn from your experience.

I also think some work cultures are more conducive to successful new media innovation. A broadly shared understanding of the strategy and roadmap is critical, as is meaningful involvement from top management and a relatively flat and collaborative workgroup structure.

So there you have it. With these ideas and a buck, you can go coffee up.